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Self-made in China

The new economic elite may be loudly singing the praises of their nation's new global status, but all the changes that have made life for some materially better can't make up for the continued lack of political liberties.

October 11, 2009|Ian Buruma | Ian Buruma is a professor of human rights at Bard College and the author of, most recently, "The China Lover."

That the current ruler of the People's Republic of China, Hu Jintao, is a bore will no doubt be a relief to most people, including 1.3 billion Chinese. Hu's dullness is remarkable given the high drama of China's fairly recent transformation from a poor, blood-soaked totalitarian country to a rich (in patches) superpower aspiring to take over America's lead in the not-so-distant future. But perhaps his lack of charisma is part of the point. The first 27 years of the People's Republic, under Chairman Mao, when millions died in almost constant purges and upheavals, and tens of millions died of starvation in bizarre economic experiments, were so awful that most Chinese are quite sick of charismatic leadership.

China is the only ancient civilization in human history to have reemerged as a major force in the world. And Chinese are rightly proud of this. So why rock the boat? It is better to be ruled by boring technocrats like Hu who will keep things nice and steady.

This is not the story one might hear from unemployed workers in the rust belts of northeastern China, or from rioting farmers in Guangdong province who have been pushed off the land by greedy developers working in tandem with corrupt party officials. Nor is this view necessarily shared by the brave lawyers willing to take on some of those corrupt officials, or intellectual dissidents who still get arrested for arguing that Chinese should be entitled to basic democratic rights.

But it is the common line taken by people who benefit most from the current wave of fun, fashion and prosperity -- the new urban elite, some of whom are pampered children of Communist Party bosses. None are communist ideologues. All have taken the late leader Deng Xiaoping's "To Get Rich is Glorious" slogan seriously. And not a few of them, now in their 40s, were among the Tiananmen Square demonstrators in 1989 who demanded democratic freedoms and an end to corruption.

One pokes into this contradiction at one's peril, especially if one is a foreigner. A prominent figure in the new Beijing elite, a highly sophisticated woman who personifies the glories of getting rich in today's China, also happens to be a daughter of the Communist aristocracy. Hong Huang is a round-faced, expensively dressed media mogul who runs a string of trendy magazines. Her mother was Mao's English teacher. Her stepfather was Mao's minister of foreign affairs. Hong was partly educated in New York, and one of her husbands was the filmmaker Chen Kaige, another player in Beijing's gilded age.

A few years ago, I was taken to Hong's lovely country house in the mountains. I had been introduced by a mutual friend, the avant-garde poet Yang Lian, who lives in London with his wife, Yo Yo, a novelist. Neither Yang Lian nor Yo Yo are, strictly speaking, political dissidents. They don't write about politics much, but they are free-spirited authors who chose not to put up with the restrictions of an authoritarian society.

The evening started off amicably, with gossip about acquaintances on the Beijing scene. Then Hong started giving Yang advice. Why was he still living abroad? Why didn't he come back home? Things were great in China now. Lots of money to be made. Yang should get with the program. All that modernist poetry might fool foreigners, but life had moved on in Beijing. He should do some advertising, or maybe pop lyrics. There was no need to worry about censorship and all that, if you knew how to play the game.

A certain edginess crept into the bracing mountain air. Hong's advice began to sound more like bullying. Tiananmen had not been mentioned, but it was the elephant in the room. It was one of the reasons Yang and Yo Yo opted for residence abroad. Suddenly, Hong brought it up, turning to me as well. "Tiananmen, Tiananmen," she said, "foreign journalists are always going on about Tiananmen. I think it's time to forget about all that. We should move on and feel proud of our country. Foreigners just use it to bad-mouth China."

I felt I had to say something, but I didn't feel like picking a fight as Hong's guest. So I put it to her that the Chinese still insist on remembering the Nanking massacre of 1937, when Japanese troops went on an orgy of rape, looting and murder in what was then the Chinese capital. Indeed, this terrible event is a central part of what is now called "patriotic education." Japanese nationalists, on the other hand, want young Japanese to forget about it because they feel that it is time to move on and that the young should feel proud of their country.

Of course, I had picked a fight. And I will never forget the way Hong -- charming, cosmopolitan, New York-educated -- turned into a ranting Red Guard, screaming abuse at me, at foreigners in general and at Yang Lian and Yo Yo for defending me. Clearly a very raw nerve had been touched.

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